Old ideas of a ‘proper job’ hold back SA’s po­ten­tial

Sunday Times - - Business Opinion -

Iam of­ten re­minded of an apoc­ryphal tale about the golfer Ernie Els’s grand­mother, af­ter he won the 1994 US Open at just 24 years of age. Asked by a jour­nal­ist how his fam­ily felt about the his­toric win, he re­sponded with char­ac­ter­is­tic can­dour: “They are ob­vi­ously all very proud of me, but my gran keeps ask­ing when I’m go­ing to get a proper job!”

As se­nior rep­re­sen­ta­tives of busi­ness, labour and the govern­ment met at the jobs sum­mit last week to “de­velop prac­ti­cal ini­tia­tives to cre­ate em­ploy­ment for mil­lions of South Africans”, I couldn’t help feel­ing that they — like Ernie’s dear grand­mother — had missed the point.

If you have missed it, SA has a long and spec­tac­u­larly bad his­tory when it comes to job cre­ation ini­tia­tives. We’re never go­ing to cre­ate the 13-mil­lion jobs by 2030 as promised by the Na­tional De­vel­op­ment Plan when we can’t even stop the econ­omy from shed­ding the few jobs we al­ready have.

The prob­lem is that there is a rapidly widen­ing gulf be­tween what is hap­pen­ing in the real world of em­ploy­ment and the sort of poli­cies and prac­ti­cal em­ploy­ment in­ter­ven­tions that keep be­ing of­fered up by busi­ness and the govern­ment.

This is not unique to SA: glob­al­i­sa­tion, dig­i­tal­i­sa­tion, and tech­nol­ogy have all fun­da­men­tally changed the way peo­ple are em­ployed, but in SA, where more than a third of the work­ing pop­u­la­tion is without work, the prob­lem is par­tic­u­larly acute.

One of the big­gest hin­drances is that those con­cerned don’t even re­ally seem to know what a job is, let alone how to cre­ate one. Politi­cians in par­tic­u­lar bandy about terms such as “full-time equiv­a­lent”, “job years”, and “em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties”, but these are largely mean­ing­less to the av­er­age South African.

It mat­ters a great deal if you work down a mine shaft for 12 hours ev­ery day for R20,000 a month or work part-time as a book-keeper for R20,000 a month.

But ei­ther way, both jobs will prob­a­bly be ob­so­lete in the next decade or two.

Un­for­tu­nately, the govern­ment has a very fixed idea of what it is to be em­ployed.

This is neatly laid out in the Labour Re­la­tions Act and Ba­sic Con­di­tions of Em­ploy­ment Act, both of which are ar­guably also some of the big­gest hin­drances to job cre­ation in SA.

As hon­ourable as it is that the govern­ment is work­ing to­wards en­sur­ing that all South Africans are as­sured of “de­cent” em­ploy­ment, in 10 to 20 years’ time it will also be largely ir­rel­e­vant.

On the eve of the fourth in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion we need to be look­ing for­wards, not back­wards, to get the right an­swers.

Any­one who thinks the idea of a gig econ­omy is new hasn’t driven past the scores of un­em­ployed men wait­ing at a labour pick-up point hop­ing to sell their labour for the day.

If we are se­ri­ous about de­sign­ing pol­icy and so­cial in­ter­ven­tions that will re­duce un­em­ploy­ment, we have to com­pletely change the way we un­der­stand the con­cept of a “job” and, with it, the skills, sec­tors and reg­u­la­tions that will pro­vide peo­ple with em­ploy­ment.

Those con­cerned don’t even re­ally seem to know what a job is, let alone how to cre­ate one

Bron­wyn Nortje

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